A front organization is any entity set up by and controlled by another organization, such as intelligence agencies, organized crime groups, banned organizations, religious or political groups, advocacy groups, or corporations. Front organizations can act for the parent group without the actions being attributed to the parent group thereby allowing them to hide from public view.
Front organizations that appear to be independent voluntary associations or charitable organizations are called front groups. In the business world, front organizations such as front companies or shell corporations are used to shield the parent company from legal liability. In international relations, a puppet state is a state which acts as a front (or surrogate) for another state.
Intelligence agencies use front organizations to provide "cover", plausible occupations and means of income, for their covert agents. These may include legitimate organizations, such as charity, religious or journalism organizations; or "brass plate firms" which exist solely to provide a plausible background story, occupation, and means of income.
The airline Air America, an outgrowth of Civil Air Transport of the 1940s, and Southern Air Transport, ostensibly a civilian air charter company, were operated and wholly owned by the CIA, supposedly to provide humanitarian aid, but flew many combat support missions and supplied covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Other CIA-funded front groups have been used to spread American propaganda and influence during the Cold War, particularly in the Third World. When intelligence agencies work through legitimate organizations, it can cause problems and increased risk for the workers of those organizations. To prevent this, the CIA has had a 20-year policy (since 1976, per US Government sources) of not using Peace Corps members or US journalists for intelligence purposes.
Another airline allegedly involved in intelligence operations was Russian Aeroflot that worked in a close coordination with KGB, SVR and GRU. The company conducted forcible "evacuations" of Soviet citizens from foreign countries back to the USSR. People whose loyalty was questioned were drugged and delivered unconscious by Aeroflot planes, assisted by the company KGB personnel, according to former GRU officer Victor Suvorov. In the 1980s and 1990s, specimens of deadly bacteria and viruses stolen from Western laboratories were delivered by Aeroflot to support the Russian program of biological weapons. This delivery channel encoded VOLNA ("wave") meant "delivering the material via an international flight of the Aeroflot airline in the pilots' cabin, where one of the pilots was a KGB officer". At least two SVR agents died, presumably from the transported pathogens.
When businessman Nikolai Glushkov was appointed as a top manager of Aeroflot in 1996, he found that the airline company worked as a "cash cow to support international spying operations" according to Alex Goldfarb: 3,000 people out of the total workforce of 14,000 in Aeroflot were FSB, SVR, or GRU officers. All proceeds from ticket sales were distributed to 352 foreign bank accounts that could not be controlled by the Aeroflot administration. Glushkov closed all these accounts and channeled the money to an accounting center called Andava in Switzerland. He also sent a bill and wrote a letter to SVR director Yevgeni Primakov and FSB director Mikhail Barsukov asking them to pay salaries of their intelligence officers in Aeroflot in 1996. Glushkov has been imprisoned since 2000 on charges of illegally channeling money through Andava. Since 2004 the company is controlled by Viktor Ivanov, a high-ranking FSB official who is a close associate of Vladimir Putin.
Many organized crime operations have substantial legitimate businesses, such as licensed gambling houses, building construction companies, hair salons and karaoke bars, engineering firms, restaurants and bars, billiard clubs, trash hauling services, or dock loading enterprises. These front companies enable these criminal organizations to launder their income from illegal activities. As well, the front companies provide plausible cover for illegal activities such as illegal gambling, extortion, drug trafficking, smuggling, and prostitution. Tattoo parlors are often used as fronts for outlaw motorcycle clubs.
Where brothels are illegal, criminal organizations set up front companies providing services such as a "massage parlor" or "sauna", up to the point that "massage parlor" or "sauna" is thought as a synonym of brothel in these countries.
A Colombian drug cartel, the Cali Cartel, in the past used Drogas La Rebaja, now a large national pharmacy store chain, as a front company in order to launder their drug trafficking earnings.
The Church of Scientology uses front groups either to promote its interests in politics or to make its group seem more legitimate. The FBI's July 7, 1977 raids on the Church's offices (following discovery of the Church's Operation Snow White) turned up, among other documents, an undated memo entitled "PR General Categories of Data Needing Coding". This memo listed what it called "Secret PR Front Groups," which included the group APRL, "Alliance for the Preservation of Religious Liberty" (later renamed "Americans Preserving Religious Liberty"). The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) is considered by many[who?] to now be a front group for the Church of Scientology, which took the group over financially after bankrupting it in a series of lawsuits.
Time identified several other fronts for Scientology, including: the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), The Way to Happiness Foundation, Applied Scholastics, the Concerned Businessmen's Association of America, and HealthMed Clinic. Seven years later the Boston Herald showed how Narconon and World Literacy Crusade are also fronting for Scientology. Other Scientology groups include Downtown Medical, Criminon and the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE).
In politics, a group may be called a front organization if it is perceived to be disingenuous in its control or goals, or if it attempts to mask extremist views within a supposedly more moderate group. Some special interest groups engage in astroturfing, which is an attempt to mask lobbying as a grassroots movement.
South Africa's apartheid-era government used numerous front organizations to influence world opinion and to undertake extra-judicial activities and the killing of anti-apartheid activists; these included the following:
Communist parties (especially Marxist-Leninist ones) have sometimes used front organizations to attract support from those (sometimes called "fellow travellers") who do not fully agree with the party's ideology, but agree with certain aspects of it. The front organization often obscures its provenance and may often be a tool for recruitment. Other Marxists often describe front organizations as opportunist. The concept of a front organization should be distinguished from the united front (a coalition of working class or socialist parties) and the popular front. Both the united front and popular front usually disclose the groups that make up their coalitions.
According to a list prepared in 1955 by the United States Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, the Comintern set up no less than 82 front organizations in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. This tactic was often used during the Red Scare of the 1950s, when a number of organizations in the labor and peace movements were accused of being "Communist fronts". Sometimes, Communist fronts worked at an international level, as has been alleged with the World Peace Council.
Soviet intelligence infiltrated many peace movements in the West. In addition to WPC, important communist front organizations included the World Federation of Trade Unions, the World Federation of Democratic Youth, and the International Union of Students.Richard Felix Staar has also suggested that these organizations were somewhat less important front organizations: Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organisation, Christian Peace Conference, International Association of Democratic Lawyers, International Federation of Resistance Movements, International Institute for Peace, International Organization of Journalists, Women's International Democratic Federation and World Federation of Scientific Workers. There were also numerous smaller organizations, affiliated with the above fronts such as Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Numerous peace conferences, congresses and festivals have been staged with support of those organizations.
More recently, the Workers' World Party (WWP) set up an anti-war front group, International ANSWER. (ANSWER is no longer closely associated with WWP; it is closely associated with a WWP splinter, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, but PSL plays a more open role in the organization.) Similarly, Unite Against Fascism, the Anti-Nazi League, the Stop the War Coalition and Respect - The Unity Coalition are all criticised as being fronts for the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (UK).
In 2014, Andrew Cuomo established a front political party, the Women's Equality Party. The party was established to take advantage of electoral fusion laws in the state of New York that allow candidates to run on multiple ballot lines and count all of their votes together. Critics of the party and of Cuomo have noted that there is an inherent level of deception involved in the party, as Cuomo is not a woman, and the party has not favored women in its endorsement policies; Cuomo's gubernatorial campaign fund is the primary source of revenue for the party operations.
In April 1991, CPSU leadership and the KGB created a puppet political party inside Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of the Soviet Union (LDPSU), which became the second officially registered party in the country. According to KGB General Philipp Bobkov, it was a "Zubatov's pseudo-party under KGB control that directs interests and sentiments of certain social groups". The former CPSU Politburo member Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev described in his book how KGB director Vladimir Kryuchkov presented the project of the puppet party at a joint meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev and informed him about a selection of LDPR leaders, and the mechanism of funding from CPSU money. The book includes an official copy of a document providing the initial LDPR funding (3 million rubles) from the CPSU money. The leader of the LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky proved to be an effective media performer. He gained 8% of votes during the 1991 Presidential elections. He also supported the August 1991 coup attempt.
Some anti-Islamist feminist groups in the Muslim world have also been accused of being front organizations. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan has been accused of being a Maoist front, while the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq has been accused of being a front for the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq.
Banned paramilitary organizations sometimes use front groups to achieve a public face with which to raise funds, negotiate with opposition parties, recruit, and spread propaganda. For example, banned paramilitary organizations often have an affiliated political party that operates more openly (though often these parties, themselves, end up being banned). These parties may or may not be front organizations in the narrow sense (they have varying degrees of autonomy and the relationships are usually something of an open secret) but are widely considered to be so, especially by their political opponents.
Examples are the relationship between the IRA and Sinn Féin in 1980s Ireland or between the Basque groups ETA (paramilitary) and Batasuna (party) in Spain. Similarly, in the United States in periods where the Communist Party was highly stigmatized, it often operated largely through front groups. In addition, the Provisional IRA also operated a vigilante front group, called Direct Action Against Drugs.
Both Loyalist & Republican paramilitaries in Ireland during the Troubles used cover names when carrying out sectarian attacks against civilians. Irish Republican groups like the IRA & Irish National Liberation Army used front names like the South Armagh Republican Action Force, Catholic Reaction Force & People's Republican Army to claim responsibility for attacks on civilians,Loyalists like the Ulster Volunteer Force & Ulster Defense Association used various front names such as the Protestant Action Force, Ulster Freedom Fighters & Red Hand Defenders when carrying out attacks against civilians, the majority of Loyalist attacks were aimed at Catholic civilians.
Corporations from a wide variety of different industries, such as food, pharmaceutical and energy, set up front groups to advocate on their behalf.
Some pharmaceutical companies set up "patients' groups" as front organizations that pressure healthcare providers and legislators to adopt their products. For example, Biogen set up a campaign called Action for Access, which also claimed it was an independent organization and the voice of MS sufferers. People who visited the website and signed up for the campaign did not realise that these were not genuinely independent patient groups.
Over the past fifteen years, due to increasing concerns about obesity problem in the society Coca-Cola has experienced pressure from social movement activists to reduce the sugar content in its drinks. Although Coca-Cola has publicly promoted consumer engagement in healthy lifestyles with its campaigns such as 'Coming Together', activists have also exposed that Coca-Cola has secretly funded front groups or organizations that criticize social movement activists and legitimize controversial corporate activists. The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) and Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) are two main groups that engage activists on behalf of Coca-Cola, even though they were not intended to be publicly associated with Coca-Cola as a corporation. Research has revealed that CCF, with a mission to "promote responsibility and protect consumer choices", uses both verbal and visual strategies to articulate obesity as "personal responsibility", and hence protect the industry from corporate responsibility.
Tobacco companies frequently use front organizations and doctors to advocate their arguments about tobacco use, although less openly and obviously than in the 1980s. The WHO has charged that the Tobacco Industry has funded seemingly unbiased scientific organizations to undermine tobacco control measures in the past, citing the International Life Sciences Institute in particular. Another way to combat public health measures against tobacco is to use lobbying and campaign contributions. For example, RJ Reynolds, the current second-largest tobacco company in the United States, created a front groups names Get Government Off Our Back ("GGOOB") in 1994 to fight federal regulation of tobacco. By hiding its involvement with tobacco industry, GGOOB avoided the tobacco industry reputation for misrepresenting evidence and drew big supports from both public and legislative aspects, successfully resolving the threats from wide-reaching tobacco regulations.
A list of some alleged corporate front groups active in the US is maintained by the Multinational Monitor. Some think tanks are corporate front groups. These organizations present themselves as research organizations, using phrases such as "...Institute for Research" in their names. Because their names suggest neutrality, they can present the commercial strategies of the corporations which sponsor them in a way which appears to be objective sociological or economical research rather than political lobbying.
Similarly the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness has been criticised as a front organization for various industry bodies which seek to undermine regulation of their environmentally damaging activities under the guise of 'regulatory effectiveness'.
Astroturfing, a wordplay based on "grassroots" efforts, is an American term used pejoratively to describe formal public relations projects which try to create the impression of a groundswell of spontaneous popular response to a politician, product, service, or event. Corporations have been known to "astroturf", but are not the only entities alleged to have done so. In recent years, organizations of plaintiffs' attorneys have established front groups such as Victims and Families United to oppose tort reform.